When you’re traveling overseas for a longer period of time, it can get tricky to communicate unless you have a working phone. You may want to get in touch with friends living in a foreign country or to let your hotel know that your bus is running late. But using your phone from home can lead to expensive roaming bills from your home provider. Even if you have an international plan, you’re likely paying a lot for it.
And if you rely on WiFi on your iPhone or iPod on airplane mode, you’re tethered to wherever you can find a free connection, which may be difficult to find. So the next logical solution is to use an unlocked cell phone and purchase a local SIM card.
The benefits of having a local SIM card:
- You can call hostels, hotels and tour companies to book or confirm your booking or to make changes.
- You can avoid booking fees by calling directly.
- You can easier meet up with friends when traveling. It gets complicated to arrange a meeting time, or tell them you’ll be late, without cell reception or WiFi.
- Your friends and family back home also have a number to call you on via Skype or another app.
First, you’ll need an unlocked cell phone.
An unlocked phone is one that is not tied to a phone company’s plan and can be used with any SIM that is installed. You can purchase one online before you leave through a website like Amazon, get your current phone unlocked, or you can wait until you arrive at your destination. In countries like Thailand and other places throughout Asia, you can purchase unlocked cell phones for very cheap at local markets, including basic phones and smartphones.
Then you’ll need a local SIM card.
You can pick one up when you arrive at the airport, in convenience stores and in malls. From there, you can purchase the amount of credit you need for the length of your trip. Once you’re done, you can toss the SIM card and get another when you arrive somewhere else.
My Experience with Phones and SIM Cards Abroad:
On my first day in Sydney, I went to the Optus store to find my “unlocked” phone wouldn’t work, but I easily found a cheap replacement Nokia for free. I never purchased a full plan, but rather topped up with $20 credits every month, which rarely ran out before time was up. I was even able to call my family in the US without using too much credit.
In Thailand, I purchased a simple dual band phone with a charger, a SIM card and 100 baht credit for the equivalent of less than $25 USD in a small store in Pai. This allowed me to call hotels to make bookings, to arrange a pickup to my volunteer stay and to call my friend whose wedding I was attending in Koh Samui.
I can also recommend getting a cheap SIM card in the UK and Europe, but the phone may set you back more than in other countries, depending on the brand. Carphone Warehouse sells unlocked phones for £1 and you can choose from providers like Vodafone or Virgin Mobile.
Traveling Without a Phone
There are many times I wished I’d brought an unlocked phone with me on a trip or purchased a local SIM card for a short jaunt, but especially on a trip to Germany. I met up with a friend to stay at her house, but had only sent her a Facebook message. When I didn’t immediately see her, I started to worry, especially as I didn’t have a way to contact her. I eventually found her, but could have saved myself some stress if I’d had a local cell phone plus SIM card.